16.06.27, Rollo-Koster, Avignon and its Papacy, 1309-1417

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Blake Beattie

The Medieval Review 16.06.27

Rollo-Koster, Joëlle. Avignon and its Papacy, 1309-1417: Popes, Institutions, and Society. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2015. pp. 328. ISBN: 978-1-4422-1532-0 (hardback) 978-1-4422-1534-4 (ebook).

Reviewed by:
Blake Beattie
University of Louisville

For generations of papal historians, the scholarly journey to Avignon began with Les papes d'Avignon (1305-1378) by the doyen of twentieth-century Avignon specialists, Guillaume Mollat (1877-1968). Over the course of his long career, Monsignor Mollat proved as prolific as he was erudite; no single scholar did more to revive the study of the Avignon papacy. From the herculean labor behind his publication of the common letters of John XXII to his monumental edition of Étienne Baluze's Vitae paparum Avenionensium, Mollat worked tirelessly to rehabilitate the reputation of the papacy's seven-decade tarriance on the Rhône and to demon-strate that it amounted to considerably more than what Petrarch famously (and perhaps too influ-entially) dismissed as "the Babylonian Captivity" of the Church. Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that Mollat's narrative account became the foundational text for scholars in the field. First published in 1912, it went on to appear in ten editions, the last of which (1965) came out more than fifty years after the first. Even now, it remains the classic treatment.

However important Mollat's work remains, an enormous body of scholarship has piled up in the five decades since the publication of the tenth edition of Les papes d'Avignon; a fresh, accessible, single-volume overview is long overdue. Joëlle Rollo-Koster has provided just that with Avignon and Its Papacy, 1309-1417. Mollat framed the great issues that defined the Avignonese papacy--the "Italian problem" and the question of return to Rome; the Hundred Years War and its echoes places farther afield (e.g., Iberia); challenges to papal authority and the inevitable papal responses; sweeping administrative reform and expansion--and there is little to suggest that Mollat's general framework is in need of major revision. As a consequence, Rollo-Koster covers much of the same ground that Mollat did; the principal importance of her work is that it re-examines and reconsiders the issues in light of decades of new scholarship.

Rollo-Koster divides the history of the Avignon into three broad phases, associated with specific pontificates and dominated by particular issues (some of which spanned all three phases). The first chapter, "Early Popes," treats the pontificates of Clement V (1305-1314)--more a transition-al figure than a true "Avignon pope," in Rollo-Koster's view--John XXII (1316-1334), and Ben-edict XII (1334-1342). Clement's temporizing in the face of ceaseless pressure from Philip IV of France was less a sign of weakness than a necessary and generally effective strategy to prevent the papacy from falling under French royal control. John XXII was the first of the Avignon popes to make the pacification of war-torn Italy a top priority; his efforts led to huge expensive (and ultimately fruitless) conflicts with the emperor, Louis of Bavaria, and with the Milanese Visconti family and their many allies in the peninsula. John provoked theological controversies with his position on Franciscan poverty and his sermons on the Beatific Vision; by the time of his death, his policy might have appeared to have failed, though it was John who began the great administrative reorganization and expansion that became a hallmark of the Avignon papacy. Benedict XII was a Cistercian by vocation, a theologian by training, and a reformer by nature. He pulled back from the controversial policies of his predecessor and focused his attentions on reforming the religious orders--although some of these initiatives (as in the case of the Domini-cans) proved more tumultuous than he would have liked. Benedict's pontificate witnessed the outbreak of the Hundred Years' War, which tempered the urgency of the "return question" and suggested that the pope might be better positioned in Avignon to arbitrate a peaceful resolution to the Anglo-French conflict than he would in more distant Rome; it is not a coincidence that the construction of the palais des papes began in the pontificate of Benedict XII.

The second chapter, "Papal Monarchy," focuses on the pontificates of Clement VI (1342-1352) and Innocent VI (1352-1362). A Benedictine monk by profession but a grand seigneur by temperament, Clement expanded the papal palace into a spectacular symbol of the authority he claimed to exercise; far more than his predecessors, he conceived of Avignon as a legitimate seat for the papacy. Though much criticized for its lavishness, his brilliant court also served as an in-cubator of early humanism. From Avignon Clement sought to manage conflicts in Rome, Naples, and the Empire, where Louis IV was replaced by the much more amenable Charles IV, as well as the ongoing strife between England and France. Pontifical overreach was among the factors that led the cardinals to propose their Election Capitulation, which would have made the cardinals "full partners" in papal government, in the conclave that followed Clement's death. Unsurprising-ly, Innocent VI--who had subscribed to the document as cardinal--rejected it as pope. In the af-termath of the Black Death and under pressure from the marauding Free Companies, Innocent became the first pope since John XXII to make a major effort to return to Rome. Innocent au-thorized the campaigns of the brilliant and controversial legate, Cardinal Gil Álvarez Albornoz, who restored the Papal States to greater order than at any time since the pontificate of Clement.

Innocent's and Albornoz's labors set the stage for the popes' return, which is the subject of chap-ter 3 ("Returning to Rome"). Innocent's successor, Urban V (1326-70), was, like Clement VI, a Benedictine monk, but of an altogether more austere and frugal character. In 1367, despite the opposition of his cardinals, the machinations of the Visconti, and the distractions of a civil war in Castile, Urban became the first pope in more than six decades to set foot in Rome. Here, in the autumn of 1368, he met with the Byzantine Emperor John V Palaeologus, with whom he effected a symbolic reunification of the Eastern and Western Churches in exchange for a promise of western aid against the Turks. Without Albornoz (who had died two months before the pope's arrival), however, Urban struggled; by 1370 widespread unrest in Italy forced him to return, ill and dispirited, to Avignon, where he died two months after his unceremonious retreat from Italy. His successor, Gregory XI (1370-1378), a nephew of Clement VI, was left with the task of a more definitive return. Energized by the moral support of St Bridget of Sweden and St Catherine of Siena, Gregory managed, in the face of enormous resistance from his cardinals and the French crown--and a disheartening war with Florence, a long-time papal ally--to return to Rome at the beginning of 1377. Unlike Urban, he was determined to stay, in spite of the hardships he faced. But his efforts exhausted him, and he died, amidst peace talks with Florence, in March of 1378.

Chapters 4, "Constructing the Administration: Governance and Personnel," provides an overview of the operation of the Avignonese curia. Rollo-Koster rightly identifies the administrative re-forms of the Avignon popes as their most lasting achievement; her discussion here is both thor-ough and informative. Chapter 5, "Avignon: The Capital and Its Population," is arguably the best in the book. Working in the tradition of Bernard Guillemain and drawing heavily on her own original research into the city, Rollo-Koster reveals the physical and demographic transformation of the city from "little more than a Provençal village into a vibrant cosmopolitan city, a true Christian capital" (188). The final chapter, "The Great Western Schism and Avignon," reflects more the periodization of Yves Renouard than that of Mollat. Here Rollo-Koster examines the roots of the Schism in their Avignonese context, before proceeding to a brisk and engaging sur-vey of the catastrophic institutional rupture that brought the history of the medieval papacy to an end and inaugurated the distinct Renaissance papacy of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centu-ries.

This is a grand survey, and there are, inevitably, a few mistakes, though these tend to be minor (Innocent III neither considered Frederick II an opponent nor authorized a crusade against him: 25--though Innocent's successors certainly did) or typographical (Ptolemeus Lucensi should be Ptolemeus Lucensis: 33); a passage that has King John II of France visiting Avignon in October 1350 (more than two years before the death of Clement VI), hoping "to face Innocent [VI] but instead" finding "his successor [Urban V]" (115) is in obvious need of correction. Rollo-Koster consistently acknowledges the urgency that the Avignonese popes assigned to the Crusade; in view of its importance, however, she might have devoted a discrete section to the Crusade and its place in papal policy. Rollo-Koster provides detailed endnotes at the end of each chapter and paragraph-form "additional bibliographies" for each chapter at the end of the book. These will prove useful for interested scholars. Still, it is perhaps Rollo-Koster's most significant achieve-ment that she has "updated" the story of the Avignon papacy by working through the mountains of scholarship unavailable to Mollat; under the circumstances, an alphabetized, self-standing bib-liography would have been preferable.

Still, these are quibbles, and should not detract from Rollo-Koster's accomplishment. She has written a lively, engaging, thorough, and richly-researched history of the Avignon papacy for the twenty-first century. Avignon and Its Papacy will be of particular use to students looking for a concise, readable guide to the fourteenth-century papacy. One would hope for the publica-tion of a low-priced paperback version in the not-too-distant future; certainly, this would make an outstanding resource for any college or university course on the medieval papacy.

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